Escape Artist: Midwestern Culture Trips

Craving vacation plus inspiration? Hit the road for arts-themed adventures in three towns: Columbus, Indiana; Grand Rapids, Michigan; and Champaign-Urbana, Illinois

Sundaes at Zaharakos (left); the living room of the Miller House (top right); outside Miller House (bottom right)
Sundaes at Zaharakos (left); the living room of the Miller House (top right); outside Miller House (bottom right)
 

COLUMBUS, Indiana

Drive time from Chicago: 4 hours

Forty-five miles southeast of Indianapolis, this sleepy town resembles many others in the rural Midwest, with one major exception: It’s a mecca for midcentury architecture and design. For that, the city has the late J. Irwin Miller, longtime chairman of the Columbus-based engine company Cummins, to thank. The industrialist used his fortune to lure world-renowned architects—including Pritzker Prize winners I. M. Pei, Richard Meier, and Kevin Roche—to build offices, schools, and community buildings (see page 72 for information on tours). For his own home, Miller commissioned a trifecta of modernist visionaries—the architect Eero Saarinen, the interior designer Alexander Girard, and the landscape architect Dan Kiley—who collaboratively created a clean-lined, brightly colored domestic masterpiece.

The meticulously preserved property—it looks almost exactly as it did in the 1950s, when the Miller family moved in—has been open to the public since last year. The Indianapolis Museum of Art, which acquired the home in 2009, offers guided tours that are surprisingly permissive. Nothing is roped off, and visitors see everything from the Millers’ master suite to their laundry room, where a custom print by Girard’s brother Tunsi hangs above the washing machine.

A Girard plate set
A plate set bears a pattern by Girard

EAT AND DRINK
Grab a seat on the patio and order a burger made from Indiana-raised beef at Scotty’s Burger Joint (310 Washington St.). Then cross the street to Zaharakos (329 Washington St.), a 112-year-old ice cream parlor that has old-timey charm without the kitsch. Nearby Fourth Street is home to a string of restaurants and bars, including Power House Brewing Co. (322 Fourth St.), which serves its own pleasantly bitter brews.

STAY
The modern yet comfy Hotel Indigo (400 Brown St.) is a short walk from Columbus’s hub of architectural landmarks and the business district. Also close to the action: the Inn at Irwin Gardens (608 Fifth St.), a bed and breakfast housed in the opulent 1910 mansion where Miller grew up.

DO
Bus tours ($10 to $20) of Columbus’s architectural attractions leave daily from the Columbus Area Visitors Center (506 Fifth St.; columbus.in.us for times). New this year are walking tours ($15), which take off every first and third Saturday at 10:30 a.m. For another stroll, stop at the 85-acre Mill Race Park (Fifth Street and Lindsey Street). Home to modernist sculptures, its main attraction is Indiana’s oldest covered bridge, built in the 1840s.

SHOP
At the Visitors Center, browse a polished collection of merchandise inspired by local architecture and design, including a plate set ($52, right) with a Girard pattern used by the Millers. Viewpoint Books (548 Washington St.) carries Indiana-themed volumes on prominent Columbus buildings.

GO NOW: MILLER HOUSE AND GARDENS
Through November, 90-minute tours ($20) of the 6,838-square foot house and its 13-acre grounds are given Tuesday to Saturday at 1 and 3 p.m. and Sunday at 1 p.m. (imamuseum.org/millerhouse for reservations). Book early: Each session caps out at 13 people. Tours leave from the Columbus Area Visitors Center (506 Fifth St.), which offers free parking.

NEXT: Grand Rapids, Michigan »

 

Photography: (Zaharakos) courtesy of Columbus Area Visitors Center; (Miller House, plates) courtesy of Indianapolis Museum of Art

 


A 2011 ArtPrize entry (left); an installation at ArtPrize 2011(top right); crowds at last year’s ArtPrize (bottom right)
 

GRAND RAPIDS, Michigan

Drive time from Chicago: 3 hours

The founders of ArtPrize, a FreeForm public arts competition in Grand Rapids, Michigan, have a guiding philosophy: “We don’t curate anything,” says Brian Burch, an organizer. Any artist from anywhere in the world may participate; any space in the riverside city’s downtown can be a venue (this year’s 162 sites include the Grand Rapids Art Museum and the Department of Corrections; see artprize.org for other locations); and any of the hundreds of thousands of people who show up are invited to vote for the winner (who will walk away with $200,000). Time is the only restriction: Voting, which requires in-person registration, takes place in two rounds, from September 19 to October 4, with awards presented on October 5.

It’s a populist, creative free-for-all, but it’s not without star power. A smaller, juried prize is chosen by a team including the Chicago-based artist Theaster Gates and New York magazine’s chief art critic, Jerry Saltz—both of whom will give public talks (artprize.org for schedules).

EAT AND DRINK
Downtown Grand Rapids is home to two excellent breweries that also happen to be ArtPrize venues: Founders Brewing Co. (235 Grandville Ave. SW) and HopCat (25 Ionia Ave. SW). To escape the crowds, take the ten-minute drive (or bus ride) from the city center to the East Hills neighborhood. Ask for a table on the garden patio at the Green Well Gastro Pub (924 Cherry St. SE), or venture across the street to Brewery Vivant (925 Cherry Street SE), a Belgian-themed brewpub.

STAY
Make reservations early if you’re planning an overnight visit—rooms citywide sell out during the competition. Try the LEED-certified CityFlats Hotel (83 Monroe Center St. NW), which offers small yet sleek lodgings in the heart of downtown, or the historic Amway Grand Plaza hotel (187 Monroe Ave. NW) for its central location and views of the Grand River (ask for a room on the tower side).

DO
Check out the lineup of bands playing at the Pyramid Scheme (68 Commerce Ave. SW), a concert venue that boasts rows of pinball machines.

SHOP
Browse the specialty shops, including a Wolverine Company Store, at the downtown retail complex MoDiv (40 Monroe Center St. NW). Or head back to East Hills to peruse its boutiques, including the well-curated accessories and home store Lamb (949 Cherry St. SE).

GO NOW: ARTPRIZE
The free festival’s 1,517 works of art, all of which are exhibited downtown, are on view from September 19 to October 7. Locals recommend visiting during the competition’s second weekend: The first round of voting for the top artists ends at 11:59 p.m. on September 29, and the second one begins at 2 p.m. on September 30.

NEXT: Champaign-Urbana, Illinois »

 

Photography: (Lorri Acott, Conversation With Myself, Screwed Arts Collective, Screwed Rapids (Drawing #3), 2011) courtesy of Vince Dudzinski Photography; (crowd) Courtesy of ArtPrize

 

The crowd at the 2011 Pygmalion Music Festival
Pygmalion concertgoers in 2011
 

CHAMPAIGN-URBANA, Illinois

Drive time from Chicago: 2.5 hours

If heat or crowds keep you away from Chicago’s indie fest Pitchfork, Pygmalion is the answer. With a bill of more than 55 well-known acts, not only does it bring in more bands, it also has a couple other notable advantages: the shows are spread across several venues, both indoors and out, diffusing the masses, and it’s held September 27 to 29, when cooler weather is on the way in.

This year’s lineup is worth traveling for, and includes surf rockers Best Coast, experimentalists Grizzly Bear, and arty wailers Dirty Projectors. The latter will be touring for their new album, Swing Lo Magellan. After Pygmalion, you won’t catch them in Illinois before next year.

EAT AND DRINK
A short walk from one of the main outdoor stages, Carmon’s Bistro (415 N. Neil St., Champaign) serves oysters, steak frites, and other French-influenced small plates and hearty entrées. Locals go to Esquire Lounge (106 N. Walnut St., Champaign) for cold beer, good sandwiches, and free peanuts. A few doors down, the English-style pub the Blind Pig Co. (120 N. Walnut St., Champaign) has an impressive list of microbrews and international drafts.

STAY
The boutique I Hotel (1900 S. First St., Champaign) rests on the southern edge of the University of Illinois campus. It’s out of the way of most venues but has more personality than the chain lodgings that dominate town. The unfussy Eastland Suites (1907 N. Cunningham Ave., Urbana) offers a free shuttle to concerts for festival attendees.

DO
The massive Market at the Square features an Illinois-only lineup of farmers, artisans, and food vendors from 7 a.m. to noon each Saturday (Illinois Street and Vine Street, Urbana).

SHOP
Exile on Main St. (1 E. Main St., Champaign) is a Pygmalion venue and downtown Champaign’s only remaining independently owned record store. Two blocks south, Furniture Lounge (11 E. University Ave., Champaign) sells a solid selection of midcentury modern furniture and housewares—and claims to ship anything anywhere.

GO NOW: PYGMALION MUSIC FESTIVAL
Passes ($100; pygmalionmusicfestival.com for schedule) offer access to the festival’s full lineup but are in limited supply. Tickets to single shows (from $15), including each night’s headlining acts, will be released in batches on Pygmalion’s website up to the week of the fest.

 

Photograph: Courtesy of Justine Bursoni Photography

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